Friday, 30 March 2012

Harry Potter Studio Tour

I've reviewed the Harry Potter studio tour for The Daily Telegraph. It was relatively severely cut, so I'm pasting the original below.

The Harry Potter studio tour nestles behind houses that look like those in Privet Drive (the street where Potter is practically imprisoned by his repressive family, the Dursleys). The most interesting thing about the tour is not that everything from the films is present, correct, and beautifully rendered – which it is. It’s not that the entrance hall is antiseptic, with an unprepossessing café and a temple to merchandise (where it wasn’t the prices that galled me so much as the baseball caps. Really?). Incidentally, you can also buy butterbeer - and I don't know what they put in it, but it had me babbling uncontrollably for at least half an hour.

Whilst you are prepared to accept that you are actually walking down the skewed Dickensian charm of Diagon Alley, where shop fronts spill over with intriguing magical goods, you’re also constantly made aware that you’re on a studio lot. There are barriers –  the clinical sort that you get in amusement parks, not velvet ropes. There are too many excitable people bursting to tell you exactly how the sets were constructed. I watched a little boy cornered by one, who told him that the books in Professor Dumbledore’s study are actually bound telephone directories. “No they’re not! They’re magic books!” I almost said. It struck me that explanations could have been left until the end, for those who wanted them.

But more importantly, the proximity of those all-but-pebble-dashed houses highlighted that everything in Harry Potter is an extension of something in our, real world. You would have thought that when, in one of the most magical moments in children’s literature, Harry Potter receives a letter telling him that he is a wizard, he would enter into a world that is entirely different and new.

The most interesting thing about the tour is that it isn’t, and he doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong. Fans of the films (which I count myself among) will thrill to the sight of the entrance to Hogwarts as it suddenly appears behind a screen. The Great Hall is awe-inspiring, with everything, down to the boars-headed jugs, lovingly crafted. It achieves the thrill of wonder – and recognition – that the films, at their best, create. The rest of the sets are exquisite, with a precise attention to detail that is a joy to encounter. My heart thrummed with excitement at seeing copies of The Quibbler, hand-make magic books, boxes of wands, the Knight Bus, Buckbeak the hippogriff – at everything. I was both moved and enchanted.

This, however, is not a different world. Harry Potter’s universe, in both magical and non-magical parts, is a cartoon place that draws its strengths from the way that it apes us. The sets on this tour are all real places taken to their logical conclusion. The Gryffindor dormitory, where Harry and his chums spend most of their lives, is the ideal version of a dormitory: four poster beds, a large stove (on which, charmingly, a pair of socks has been left to dry), trunks and a Manchester United duvet. 4 Privet Drive is the ür-Privet Drive. The gamekeeper Hagrid’s hut is entirely folksy; Dolores Umbridge’s study is an exaggeration of a lady’s boudoir; the Gryffindor common room is the quintessence of manor house comfort. The wizards’ world, made flesh by the films, is ours: distorted, yes; but ours all the same.

The wizards are meant to have little or no knowledge of our non-wizard world – and yet they use some everyday objects and don’t understand others. One can’t help thinking that if wizards were really wizards, why would they need all this paraphernalia? Because in Rowling’s world, wizards are not really wizards. (“What?” I hear you splutter.) There is none of the terrible self-examination of Ursula Le Guin’s Ged, in The Wizard of Earthsea, for example. What they can do with “magic” is arbitrary, with little logic or consequence.

The Harry Potter stories distil these ideal forms into a powerful tale of good and evil, accessible because of its derivative nature. But there is nothing challenging, or truly uncanny here. The dark wizard will always be defeated, because his power is ultimately meaningless. That’s what the studio tour brings home: it’s extremely enjoyable, but as passing as the oversugared taste of butterbeer.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

Harding: one to watch
Hello there, I've reviewed Georgina Harding's Painter of Silence for The Telegraph. Read all about it here. I also reviewed her second novel, a few years ago, for the same paper


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic, dir. James Lloyd: review

Eve Best as the Duchess
 "A prince's court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver-drops in general. But if't chance
Some curs'd example poison't near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread."
(Duchess of Malfi, Act I, Scene i, l.10)

It's a good time for Jacobean tragedies on the London stage - barely a fortnight ago I revelled in the adolescent fever-dream of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore; now James Lloyd brings to the Old Vic a stately, portentous, wrenching production of John Webster's 1612ish The Duchess of Malfi, which is at once classic and innovative. The text has been cleverly edited - the beginning is shifted to solve some timing issues, for instance; the dumb show has been excised, as have characters that have little to do with the plot -  to make it knife sharp; or alternatively a hollow cave in which revenge gapes and roars, never quite knowing which way it has to turn or who its agent might be, and in which goodness is as fragile as the skin of an apricot.

Webster's entropic revenge tragedy sees a young widow, the Duchess of Malfi, forbidden by her royal brothers, the Duke Ferdinand (an excellent Harry Lloyd, who played him with sinister insanity, a quivering edginess that was thrilling and moving) and the Cardinal (a Machiavellian, martial Finbar Lynch) from marrying Antonio, her steward (played with Disney-esque heroism, shading into something more powerful, by Tom Bateman.) Antonio and the Duchess conceal their love, only for it to be revealed; they are banished, the Duchess imprisoned and then murdered.

Eve Best's Malfi shone out. She was the serious prince; the playful wife; the tender lover;  the wronged woman who goes to her death with pride and honour. The scene in which she must hide her pregnancy and is gulled into revealing it by guzzling apricots was convincing; the gentle merriness of her love with Antonio as they gambol on her bed was touching ("Were we ever so merry?" she asks); at the other end of the spectrum, her death scene was one of the most brutal and powerful things I have seen in recent theatre, her struggles extended but never comical. The calm serenity of her affirmation of identity when she lies imprisoned: "I am Duchess of Malfi still" was underlain with something powerful and scared at the same time.

Equally brilliant was the malcontent intelligencer Bosola, whose complex relationship with the audience, as he goes from rough murderer to avenger, was teased out perfectly by Mark Bonnar: weathered soldier to disillusioned, howling Fury.

Corruption and rankness seep through the play: standing pools, poisoned fountains and rotting flesh are constant motifs: "Thou art a box of worm seed at best, but a salvatory of green mummy", says Bosola to the Duchess; Bosola, his vengeane perfect at the end, says "We are only like dead walls, or vaulted graves / That, ruin'd, yields no echo." The court where the  Duchess of Malfi operates is rank - like Hamlet's Elsinore - a place where gossip and cunning run riot. People hide behind arrases; reputation is all (and nothing). The stage set was a large, cloistered structure, which functioned both as an area where anyone could stand and overhear anyone else, and also shifted (sometimes spectacularly) from public to private space, from court to bedroom, showing how though one may try to shore up those barriers, they are in reality nothing more than gossamer.

Candles lit the gloom, and light and sound was used cleverly: when the Duchess first appears (after Antonio, her beloved, claims that she stains time past, and lights the time to come) she arrived in a blaze of whiteness; when the adulterous Julia is discovered with the Cardinal, the entire stage set dripped with crimson. There is a scene in which Antonio, bent on reconciliation with the brothers, hears an echo. Snow falls, he is wrapped in a cloak: what might have been overly doom-laden was rendered supremely plangent by the fact that the echo sounded like the dead Duchess' voice.

The production also brought out the animality of the play - although it cut my favourite line ("abortive hedgehog") it still bristles with wolves and tigers (and dormice), even entering the plot in the form of Ferdinand's lycanthropy (which, I noticed, is foreshadowed when he tells Bosola that wolves will dig up the Duchess' corpse.) Ferdinand's insanity also dripped throughout the rest of the play - was anyone really sane? Cariola, the Duchess' maid, questions her sanity; when the Duchess is imprisoned, her brother Ferdinand sends madmen to howl outside her windows.

One of the most famous scenes in the play is when the bodies of Antonio and her son are revealed to the Duchess; she is not told that they are only wax representations. It's both a clever commentary on acting - we are taken in, as the Duchess is - and here it was also a suggestive catalyst of fear: the bodies appeared swinging from nooses, reminding me of the messenger speech in Oedipus Rex describing Jocasta's hanging; that slight movement all the more effective.

The cast operated sometimes in masque-like fashion, with static figures; othertimes with stylised, courtly movement, but always with grace and fluidity. The action was quick; the first half like a lit fuse; the second half was like the resonating explosion. A superlative production which slices out the beating heart of the play: the dying Antonio calls for his son to leave courtly life; but after he dies, and the brothers and Bosola die with him, it is his son who is brought in to take on the princely mantel. To enter the machine again. We can only hope that he will be able to purge something from the air.

The Duchess of Malfi shows Webster to be just as interesting a playwright as Shakespeare (though why does nobody ever question that a cartwright's son was able to write about the goings on at a distant court in Italy? Just a thought.) Though the court is rank and enseamed, the Duchess does manage to die a good death - a Christian death. Sanity is possible, and so is goodness.

Monday, 12 March 2012

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard: review

Knausgaard: Rock star?
I've reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family for The New Humanist.  I won't rehash what I thought of it. Suffice it to say I don't every particularly want to see it again.